I’m tickled that there’s a company called Sports Authority, because in our world, sports are the only authority there is. We trust the people who manage sports in a way we don’t trust politicians, economists, scientists, clergy, celebrities, or other public figures. That’s why it feels like an important moment when X sports authority suspends Y sports authority for criticizing Z sports authority. ESPN has suspended Bill Simmons – the best writer of his generation – for calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar. By deposing an emperor, two other emperors have revealed that they have no clothes – from Sports Authority or otherwise.
First, context. Sports has always been distraction, the “circus” in bread and circuses, but the urgency for sports in America has been stronger in the 21st century. How many post-9/11 stories did you see about how the Yankees and the Mets needed to “heal” New York City? How often in the last 13 years – through strikes, steroids, stultifying natural disasters – has the national narrative asked, oh, are they still going to play ball? As though to suspend, or continue, sports was to do the same with life itself. And yes, sports verifies and revivifies the American Dream, where if you work hard enough you can succeed. Since 2008, we’ve had more reason to doubt that Dream than at any time since the 1930s. At the same time, since the 1960s or so, we’ve had what many call a “crisis of masculinity”; basically since women became full partners in the workforce and at home, men seem to have a problem being men. There’s a lot more to it than that, but for the sake of this essay just trust me that it’s there and that men playing sports are generally confirming their masculinity.
One crisis they didn’t have in the 1930s is something scholars call the “crisis of the real.” If the writings of Walter Winchell, H.L. Mencken, E.B. White and Dorothy Parker are any guide, people in the 1930s could and did basically assume that reality was fairly close to what was being reported. As many fans of The Matrix films can tell you, we are living in a time when the simulation is taken for the real thing. Our online avatars and even our status updates present a cleaned-up version of ourselves which may have little to do with who we are…but those avatars can really do things, from shop to work to love. Postmodern fragmentation is the internet’s only rule; for example, you obviously can’t go to Grantland or ESPN to find out what happened to their most famous contributor. If news was once believed, we now believe news to mean bias; everything on TV, very much including so-called “reality TV,” is stage-managed and re-mediated; nothing on TV can possibly approach the realism of…well, of a surveillance video. That’s the little unspoken problem lurking behind the falling ratings of everything on TV, even after you account for DVRing: in the world of the unreal, nothing needs to be seen live or otherwise – well, nothing except sports.
In a way, sports is reality TV, and that tension is part of why The Hunger Games movies are popular, but baseball, basketball, and football are more than Survivor, The Bachelor and American Idol. It’s the traditions, it’s the athletic grace, it’s the rivalry between cities, it’s the recognition of our own experiences playing sports: here’s what it would look like if we were better at that thing we tried. In response to four crises, then – namely the withering-away of: 1) the American Dream, 2) masculinity, 3) community-gluing TV, and 4) reality – sports offers something we know to be true, at least on the level of competition. Everything else is clothes trying to dress the beautiful person who is that competition: the advertisers are clothes, the beer and friends you share with the World Cup are clothes, the hype is clothes, the sportswriters are clothes. This current and ridiculous Derek Jeter farewell tour (not that Jeter asked for it) are clothes designed to paper over the unruly injury that was baseball’s steroid era, where you could no longer see the competition (body) as beautiful. Bill Simmons is/wears the old T-shirt and weathered baseball cap of our time, the clothes we depend upon when we’re being true to ourselves.
It really says something about our nascent century that Bill Simmons, neé the Sports Guy, is its best regularly writing writer. That wasn’t true in the 1930s – look at the old New Yorkers and Times – and don’t think people weren’t mad over baseball and boxing back then. Simmons is as eloquent as Mencken and Parker, but our priorities have changed. We needed and need someone to navigate us through these four crises, and perhaps a fifth one that concerns our contemporary lack of faith in anyone. We believe in Bill Simmons, and we should; he chronicles doing what we are doing, writ large: trying to get through life, gambling a little, talking too much on podcasts, enjoying movies and shows and sports and hoping that it means a little more than it probably does. He gives us lists and new terms for things that need them. He addresses the “real” every time he writes “As always, these are actual emails from actual readers” – that’s every week. He addresses masculinity by confirming that it’s okay to love sports and not be a barbarian. And he has lived the American Dream by ascending from being an outsider shooting spitballs at ESPN and its “talking heads” to becoming one of its programmers and one of its talking heads – without ever being a professional athlete.
People come on the Sunday morning talk-shows and inevitably say “America needs to have a conversation about…” their pet issue, whether it’s farmer subsidies or the DREAM Act or climate change. But we never do have that conversation. Unless it relates to sports (e.g., O.J.). Since the Ray Rice video – since that confluence of sports media, uncontestable realism, and misbegotten masculinity – we have absolutely had a conversation about domestic violence. #whyistayed and #whyileft are real things. Abuse hotlines and support organizations are getting the kind of attention they’ve sought for years. Do we expect our best writer to just shut up about all this? Come on.
Of course Simmons is right about the Ray Rice situation, right that Roger Goodell probably saw the tape and probably didn’t think he saw anything worse than dozens of other domestic violence cases that the NFL has previously wrist-slapped. Of course all this is right:
Either the NFL is run by an overmatched commish who orders around a slew of lackeys and buffoons and never saw that day coming; they saw the tape but never expected it to come out; they watched the tape and then buried it (the most nefarious of all the scenarios, by far); they underestimated the impact of the tape (and then some); and/or they were outwitted by the one and only Harvey Levin. Whatever the answer, the NFL failed basic IQ standards here for seven months. It waited five months to give a verdict, botched it so horrendously that it had to create a loophole-filled domestic-violence policy on the fly, then redid the Rice verdict a second time when the second tape came out. Last time I checked, real life doesn’t have a RESET button.
Since this, Simmons has been right to label Goodell a liar and to point to institutional failure in this case. What’s fascinating for us is watching this conflict come to a head, publicly, between these nodes of power, almost like watching Google, YouTube, and Amazon in a 3-way brawl. (We also watch that, but it happens in much slower motion.) In some ways, as Simmons tries to stick up for justice in the Ray Rice fiasco, and then falls victim to the same suspension that Rice (initially) received, he becomes almost like a noir hero, pointing out a trap that he himself falls into. In another way, Simmons might be a little too happy to be ahead of the curve on professional sports’ penalties for domestic violence (compared to, say, drug possession); it’s almost like he’s in Colorado, holding up a bag of weed and taunting the other governors for not legalizing pot yet. Is Simmons still one of us, someone on the couch with the chips, dip and beer, or is he now a leader, helping to move America to a more enlightened place? He’s more both than he ever was, and that’s a fascinating tension, because it speaks to how in the midst of the aforementioned crises, Generation X is becoming responsible for America, how we’re keeping some of what the boomers left us, and getting rid of the rest. No one ever said that would be a painless process. While it continues, we need Simmons to help us sort out which emperors are deserving and which are naked.
Remember, media and sports: you’re not brain surgeons. You’re circuses, not bread. If Ray Rice had been a Stanford grad-student biochemist searching for a cure for cancer and a video emerged of him coldcocking his fiancé, well, maybe you could have argued for some leniency there, seeing as we need such a person to help millions. No one needs athletes. Entertainment is just circuses, and in the world of visual arts, failing to be perceived as pleasing is a firing offense. This is where Simmons gets it right and, in appearing to collude with the NFL (and protect their $15 billion co-investment in Monday Night Football, among other things), ESPN gets it wrong in this instance. Networks and sports leagues can’t have it both ways – they can’t provide full coverage about a given topic and expect only sycophantic writers (for the NFL, Peter King is Exhibit A). This isn’t Russia. 50 years ago, the big movie studios lost their absolute control over the press; no more hiding all those unsavory dalliances. Sports leagues and indeed Disney (controlling ESPN/Grantland) need to prepare themselves for more of the same.
ESPN has a monopoly on American sports-related media (sorry, Fox, I wish it were otherwise), and despite Chris Anderson’s sunny “Long Tail” optimism of a few years ago, the monopolies and oligopolies have taken back the power – the Big Six media corporations manage TV while the Big 4.5 internet corporations (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, maybe Netflix) control the other content we see online. You may have heard that the one-time Big Three Networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, are dead or on life support, but the power they once wielded isn’t; those 11 corporations have as much power over America as the Big Three Networks ever did. In their ruthless buying-out of competitors and restricting the playing field exclusively to their entities, these 11 have quite nicely followed, or complemented, the NFL and the NBA and the MLB. In the 21st century, the Forbes 500 companies demand not just to be the richest, but to control every kind of business with their same business model. Mom and Pop businesses go home, or prepare to prostrate yourself to Apple. Yet in this world of Supreme Court-approved corporate citizens, businesses still need individuals like Simmons, as a public face to and for customers, and there’s something…great about that. It suggests that the users, or customers, may yet have the power and may even wield it. Watch your back, ESPN and NFL. Your customers have more in common with Bill Simmons than you’d like to think. We’re not planning to go naked, so you better make sure your emperors have some clothes that aren’t Ray Rice jerseys.